It’s widely acknowledged that politicians played a role in Thailand’s prolonged problems. As the country may be about to reset with a new constitution, The Nation’s Piyaporn Wongruang and Kasamakorn Chanwanpen talked to Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejja
Here is an excerpt from the interview with Abhisit
AS WE ALL KNOW, POLITICIANS HAVE HAD A ROLE IN THE COUNTRY’S PROBLEMS, HOW DO YOU REFLECT ON THIS ISSUE? DO YOU AGREE WITH WHAT MANY PEOPLE HAVE SAID, THAT POLITICIANS ARE ALL BAD AND SHOULD BE REMOVED?
Let me start from this point. Thailand, like any country in the world, cannot avoid the truth that ultimately people have rights and a role in determining the country’s future. I would like to stress this point because some people have devalued democracy and made it something intangible that cannot be touched and thus cannot help to solve the country’s problems.
However, history has told us that to solve the country’s problems and to move forward, people’s participation with a guarantee of freedom and liberty makes this possible. On the other hand, we have had democracy corrupted by politicians to serve their own interests. Some have entered politics with a democratic spirit, but became undemocratic, and that often causes a problem and conflict instead.
In turn, people lose faith in them and in democracy. People come to the conclusion that democracy itself is a problem. In my view, our past problems were not the result of democracy itself, but the way it was corrupted or distorted. I still have hope for a constitution to help to lead us to a “clean” democracy, one without any corruption of power.In my view, our past problems were not the result of democracy itself, but the way it was corrupted or distorted.
Unfortunately, the charter draft has apparently failed to address this most critical challenge. It has just tried to rearrange political power, while giving weight to the bureaucratic element, which itself is also a cause of problems. We have a question to ask together: Whether this charter draft, which would have relatively permanent features because it would be difficult to amend in the future, is good enough to lead us to answer the country’s challenges.
THAT MEANS YOU DO NOT THINK THAT IT WOULD LEAD US TO WHAT WE DESERVE – TRUE DEMOCRACY?
I think we have three main challenges to be addressed, which are closely related to true democracy, especially the first point, and this charter draft does not answer them.
First, it does not address the country’ sustainable development path that helps to lift people’s quality of life. The most critical challenge that we have is inequality and poverty, and the best regime to respond to these needs is true democracy.
Second, conflict and division can only be solved by democracy and justice, and they should not be mixed up like we did in the past. However, this charter draft has rearranged the composition of the new government and introduced a new power of 250 selected senators, which in my view could cause a new conflict. If we look back in history, we will see that government’s trying to carry on in power end in severe conflict.
And last, the corruption problem. I actually support the efforts to suppress corruption in the charter draft, but I feel that the measures proposed in the draft will take us backwards.
The charter draft does not respond to these three challenges. That’s the reason why I said that if the charter does not pass the referendum, it would give the country an opportunity to get something better.
IT SEEMS YOU BELIEVE IF WE MANAGE TO ADDRESS THESE 3 POINTS, WE WILL MOVE TOWARDS TRUE DEMOCRACY. HOWEVER, POLITICIANS IN THE PAST HAD ROLES TO PLAY, WHETHER GOOD OR BAD, IN RELATION TO ALL OF THESE POINTS. SO WHAT CAN THEY DO ABOUT THIS?
They can do something to make things better. And there is something that very much has to be done fundamentally regarding people’s rights and liberty. Politicians quite like for people to have a relatively low level of rights and freedom. But it’s something that they have to accept (that people have the right to help determine the country’s future). They must review past lessons or otherwise the problems the country faces will grow more complex over time. My government learned this from the case of Map Ta Phut (environmental controversies).
Meanwhile, various social security benefits for people need to be protected and promoted by us politicians.
Second, there is the issue of conflict and division. It’s still a challenge to prevent politicians from triggering conflict and hatred among people. I agree that there must be a mechanism to deal with politicians in this aspect, but I do not agree with having a new body or power wielded by senators appointed as proposed in the draft, because they themselves will trigger a conflict, in my view.
Third, the corruption issue.
I agree with efforts to solve this problem, but increasing punishments alone, especially against politicians, cannot help. The best approach would be to put in place effective checks-and-balances mechanisms that cannot deny the role of people in the process and their political participation.
Most of all, we need a charter draft that promotes people having the rights and power to control politicians and their relationships.
DO YOU THINK POLITICIANS OR POLITICAL PARTIES STILL NEED MAJOR REFORM AS DEMANDED BY SOCIETY? IF SO, HOW?
Well, to deal with bad people we tend to think of systems, and the best system to screen bad people is still democracy, in my view.
Our party is also preparing to reform ourselves to better serve the people, to make it belong completely to the party members, who can participate in the party’s activities and decisions. Still, we are restricted by the National Council for Peace and Order, which does not allow us to hold political activities including meetings at the moment. If possible, I want to see political parties reformed.
Excerpts from Chaturon’s interview
AS WE KNOW THAT POLITICIANS HAVE HAD A ROLE IN THE COUNTRY’S PROBLEMS, WHAT ARE YOUR REFLECTIONS ON THE ISSUE? DO YOU AGREE WITH WHAT PEOPLE HAVE SAID – THAT POLITICIANS ARE ALL BAD AND SHOULD BE GOT RID OF?
To say politicians are the prime cause of the country’s problems has long been a created discourse since we first turned to democracy. It has long been used as an excuse for coups. That discourse may be partly true, but not entirely so.
I personally don’t accept this discourse, and no matter how problematic politicians are, that cannot be used as an excuse to legitimise a coup. This is what we need to address first so we can address problems about politicians correctly.
If you ask whether politicians and political parties have created extensive problems, the answer is yes, but again, that is not the sole cause of the country’s problems requiring a coup. That’s the wrong way of thinking, the wrong logic. There are no countries in the world that allow coups to solve such problems. I also support this view. There is no legitimacy at all in a coup, which always worsens the problems.
BUT BY SAYING THE DISCOURSE IS PARTLY TRUE, THAT MEANS YOU AGREE POLITICIANS OR POLITICAL PARTIES HAVE A PROBLEM?
They do, and to solve the problem and help the country to develop better, they need to change the way they practice. I would rather look at what flaws there are in the system.
First, political parties must be more democratic. They are generally dependent on money provided by political parties’ supporters, donors or even capitalists. Without a good management system in place, the majority of voices tend to be subjugated and lose their ability to keep the balance.
This actually has to do with rules and regulations to help facilitate our idealistic political parties, which need to be addressed in the supreme law of the constitution. The most critical challenge is how we help politicians to pursue political activities without being too dependent on the parties’ donors. In other words, how to make them more independent to represent the people better.
This is difficult, given the current system, which needs much more serious reform. There needs to be investments by society, whether financial support or other forms. The question is whether Thai society understands the point and is ready to contribute to this.Third, political parties need to develop public policies based on academic information that can truly serve the public interest or a majority of people.
If we support parties to develop their policies, that would help the parliamentary system, the electoral system and the parties themselves to move towards development that responds better to people’s needs.
WHAT ABOUT THE PROBLEM POSED BY POLITICIANS?
Our political parties are moving towards a two-party system, with each having their own base of voters and supporters, based relatively on region.
It’s true that screening candidates is the direct responsibility of political parties. There is a discourse that candidates are based on popularity within the party, which determine whoever, even a power pole, can be fielded in a poll.
To fix this, there is the idea of a primary voting system that would allow party members to choose their own candidates, but that’s still a long way off. On the other hand, the Election Commission’s recent regulations hinder the party’s development so what we see at present is the formation of political parties that have far fewer members compared with the old parties.
Primary voting is not yet an option at this point, while a good system to help manage political parties is not in place. What we see is that political parties are easily manipulated as are their politicians.
The charter draft, on the other hand, does not address this, and instead comes up with a new electoral system that even takes away the people’s will to select their favourite politicians.
ARE THEY ACTUALLY THE SAME ISSUE – THE PROBLEMS WITH POLITICAL PARTIES AND WITH POLITICIANS? DO YOU NOT THINK THAT POLITICIANS AS INDIVIDUALS HAVE A PROBLEM, OR THEY ARE “BAD”, AS PEOPLE HAVE SAID?
Personally, I don’t really believe in individuality. For me, the system comes first. If we have a good system, I believe that good people will have more of a chance to enter politics, which at the same time would help to keep them in check. If the system is poor or the rules are poor, good people just stepping across the door of politics is almost impossible, not to mention their ability to maintain their independence to work for the people. In the end, it’s back to the political parties. If they are not democratic, a lot of good people will not want to enter politics and will shy away.
That’s a different matter than corrupt politicians that needs to be addressed differently.
WHAT ABOUT THE ISSUE OF CORRUPT POLITICIANS, OR POLITICIANS PEOPLE PERCEIVE AS BAD?
Bad or corrupt politicians sometimes can be just a created discourse, as I said earlier. We often hear this discourse about politicians being bad or corrupt.
My point is that in recent years, despite what people have said, we have seen few politicians caught for corruption. That does not mean that there are none, as we all know, but I would like to point to our mechanisms to suppress problems including administrative corruption or electoral fraud.
In this draft, I don’t see much effort to fix these mechanisms. The Election Commission, for instance, is meant to deal with fraud but actually this has more to do with reforming political parties and their funding.The more interesting trend is that people’s favour has shifted more based on policies offered by political parties, not vote buying, based on studies I have read. This is indeed a very important development in politics here, and it’s actually a good trend in Thai society that should be supported.
To prevent electoral fraud, apart from improving suppression mechanisms, it’s back to the fundamental point, which is how we can reform and promote political parties and the electoral system. This can help come up with public policies that serve the interests of the people - that’s the meaning of democracy we have long wished for.
AND THE CURRENT CHARTER DRAFT DOES NOT ADDRESS THIS?
No, not quite, [given public policies would be determined and the parties would just have to follow, for instance]. On the contrary, the system we have developed under this draft would intercept the political development that has been done so far.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO AS A POLITICIAN?
If possible, I would try to raise all these issues and propose to the public the changes that should be made to our politics here. However, the current atmosphere does not seem to allow us to do so - the draft itself does not do so. I must accept that it's quite difficult to say or suggest anything at this point. Actually, it’s really about a very different way of thinking that does not go in parallel with others. But if we have a chance, an open space to discuss this should be made available because creating a system from the ground requires the participation of stakeholders. Ultimately, I think it’s politicians and political parties who must think hard about changes or reforming themselves. Otherwise, we will not answer the question of how good democracy is and that would be the most critical weak point, which brings everyone back to square one - an excuse for a coup time and again.